More than Facts: Taiwan's Challenge of Finding National Identity

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Friday July 25, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

History is a challenging subject; it is facts and happenings, but it is a lot more. The selection, emphasis, and presumed causation of those facts as well as their interpretation and meaning are where the complexity and challenge reside. For Taiwanese two recent and concurrent events once again have illustrated the gigantic divide that it, Taiwan, must still overcome in establishing its own place in history and its national identity. What once again raised these issues actually happened outside Taiwan. July 7, 1937 was the 77th anniversary and commemoration of the historic Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the incident that by most accounts began the Second Sino-Japanese War. Of these remembrances, one took place in Taipei and the other in Beijing.

In Taipei, it was Ma Ying-jeou, president of Taiwan and chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) who used the occasion to repeat what he believes is the Republic of China's (ROC) claim to the Diaoyutai Islands a.k.a. the Senakus. Ma's words came at the opening of an exhibition commemorating the ROC victory in the "War of Resistance against Japan."

Beijing had a slightly different historical version of all this. It opened, on the same day, not an exhibition but a museum dedicated to the Chinese People's Resistance against Japanese Aggression. Surprisingly in attendance at this ceremony was Hau Pei-tsun, former Premier of the ROC and a retired 4-star general in its Army that had fought and lost China to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Hau used the occasion to protest what he felt was a distortion or omission in history. Missing in the People's Republic of China (PRC) museum story was the fact that the PRC did not exist in 1937 and that it was the Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek of the ROC who led the way in the struggle with and the victory over Japan. Also missing was the fact that two weeks after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the CCP forces signed a declaration that they would assist Chiang and his ROC army in driving out Japan. Things did not end there. In a twist, Hau, once an avowed enemy of the PRC later sang a PRC anthem, "March of the Volunteers," on a Chinese TV program, much to the shock and dismay of many in Taiwan. Hau defended his actions despite the fact that the PRC now threatens to attack democratic Taiwan (ROC) if it declares the de facto independence that it already has. Hau said that he was simply reminiscing about the days when both the Nationalists and Communists had joined forces against the Japanese and sang the same war songs.

Now consider Taiwan's version of that history. For Taiwanese, the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident has little or no meaning just as even the 1911 overthrow of the Manchus in China has little meaning. Taiwan had become a colony of Japan back in 1895 after the Japanese defeated the Manchus in the first Sino-Japanese war. If anything, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident just meant that Taiwanese would eventually fight for Japan in the war with China. What Taiwan remembers more is how after World War II, the KMT was defeated by the CCP and as diaspora had to flee to Taiwan. While the CCP set up the PRC in China, Taiwan in contrast was already two years into the White Terror era and under martial law in the KMT/ROC one-party state. Suffering through this, the nation eventually achieved a multiparty system and won its struggle for democracy.

Taiwan's history and relationship with Japan has been and remains totally different from that of China. Taiwanese watched their island grow and prosper under Japan, so much so, that when they were celebrating the historic 40th anniversary of Japanese Rule, Chiang Kai-shek sent the later infamous Chen Yi to represent the ROC at that event. Chen Yi praised the advanced developments in Taiwan and contrasted them with a China devastated both by its warlord period and the struggles between the KMT and CCP. That was in 1935 two years before the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.

The Taiwanese films Kano and Cape No. 7 capture some nostalgic moments of the Taiwanese experience under Japan, but a more revealing story is found in the award winning 2008 documentary Shonenko (child laborers) by Kuo Liang Yin. This documentary recounts the experience of some 8,419 Taiwanese youths (roughly ages 12-14) who from 1943-45, went to Japan to help the war effort making airplanes (Mitsubishi J2M3 Raiders). Of the 7,000 who were repatriated back to Taiwan after 2-28-47, they had to live a life of silence on what they had done during the war. Nonetheless, the bonding of their experience was so strong that in 1987 after Martial Law had been lifted, some 5,000 of the survivors found each other and celebrated that experience with reunions and trips to Japan. They even remembered and made a point of singing the Japanese war songs that they had learned from that period.

This is Taiwan's history.

With these contrasting histories it is not surprising to now listen to the words of various speakers on the Marco Polo anniversary. In China, President Xi Jinping stated that "history is history and facts are facts." He wanted of course to make sure that Chinese and the world did not forget the facts of the Japanese aggression. But in contrast China has never been honest with the facts and history of the PRC's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. China's leaders have never acknowledged the fact that many more millions of Chinese died during those periods than did during the period of Japanese aggression. Hau Pei-tsun who echoed Xi in saying that "No one should deny the history" of Japanese aggression still wondered and complained as to why the KMT historic contributions were omitted and denied. He also, has never acknowledged the full history of KMT aggression on Taiwan.

In Taipei, Ma also emphasized that the "the truth cannot be forgotten" as regards Japan's aggression, but glossed over many of the forgotten truths of what happened in Taiwan after the war. Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin, son of Hau Pei-tsun was in attendance with President Ma and had a similar KMT interpretation of history vis-à-vis Japan. An expected candidate for Taiwan's presidency in 2016, Hau emphasized that "history must be remembered and cannot be forgotten or tampered with." Yet the full ironic upshot of all this is that just within the past year both the KMT in Taiwan and the CCP in Hong Kong have consistently tried to tamper with and change the history books of those two respective places. So what should be remembered?

For Taiwanese therefore, and especially the younger generation, this is what makes the development of any sense of Taiwanese history and identity difficult. Things like the Marco Polo Bridge Incident that happened outside Taiwan mean little to them In contrast, what their memory recalls more are 2-28, and the deaths, imprisonments and suffering under the KMT's White Terror and Martial Law as well as the different interpretations of the Kaohsiung Incident and all in its aftermath.

In China, the CCP likewise will never allow the ROC version of history. Yet while the complexity of this problem expands, Ma Ying-jeou still tries to push Taiwan backwards into a dependent relationship with China. Taiwanese can only wonder what interpretations of history China will then want to impose on them if Ma succeeds. ***

*** (Footnote: The results of the 2014 and 2016 elections indicate how the people rejected Ma's vision for the nation.)